Reports on U.S. Detention and Interrogation Policy Delayed

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 20, 2009; 10:01 PM

The Obama administration is delaying completion of reports examining U.S. detention and interrogation policy, officials said Monday, in a sign of the formidable issues it faces as it grapples with how to handle terrorism suspects at the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, as well as those who might be captured overseas.

The work of a Justice Department-led task force, which had been scheduled to send a report on detention policy to President Obama on Tuesday, will be extended for an additional six months, according to senior administration officials. A second task force examining interrogation policy will get a two-month extension to complete its work.

"These are hard, complicated, consequential decisions," said one official in a briefing that the White House insisted be conducted without naming the four officials who spoke to reporters. "What we are trying to do is to make sure that we make the right decisions. And so they are looked at, they are reviewed and re-reviewed. By teeing them up to the president, we want to make sure that we have looked at every single angle because he will challenge us on these issues."

The officials said the administration remains committed to closing the prison in Cuba by January 2010, as the president ordered, but the delays are an indication of the political and legal complexities of making good on the president's timeline.

Some of the detainees at Guantanamo Bay may be deemed by the administration to be too dangerous to release but also too difficult to prosecute either in federal court or before a military commission.

Officials said Monday that it was still unclear how many Guantanamo detainees might be placed in some system of prolonged detention, and how that system might be structured. But they said that Obama would seek congressional backing for any system and not unilaterally assert his authority to hold prisoners indefinitely under the laws of war. Officials had previously said they were considering an executive order to establish a system of indefinite detention.

"There is no intent in the administration to rely on anything other than congressional authority" said one senior administration official. He said any system of prolonged detention, if adopted, would include periodic, follow-up reviews on whether a detainee continued to pose a threat to national security.

A separate inter-agency task force is examining the cases of the 229 detainees who remain at Guantanamo, and is on track to complete its work by October. Officials said more than half those cases have already been reviewed, with recommendations to transfer more than 50 detainees home or to third countries, and to prosecute others.

While the task force report focusing on detention policy has been delayed, officials released an interim report on Monday evening. In it, the task force said the decision on where to prosecute detainees will be made by attorneys from the National Security Division of the Justice Department, along with personnel from the Defense Department, including military prosecutors. A range of factors will be considered, including the need to protect intelligence sources and methods, and "evidentiary problems that might attend prosecution in the other jurisdiction," according to the interim report.

The report did not specify what kind of evidentiary problems might arise. Human rights groups argue that military commissions, even if reformed, offer a lower standard of justice because of the ability, in some circumstances, to allow in evidence obtained under duress.

The six-month delay in deciding on detention policy, coupled with the need to craft and pass legislation, suggests that the closing of the prison in Guantanamo Bay on schedule will come down to the wire. In separate interviews, some administration officials have said they fear the closing date could slide.

One official said that, in its efforts to resettle detainees, the government is making "good progress with a number of European countries and countries outside of Europe." He cited, in particular, the Pacific island of Palau, which has offered to settle Chinese Uighurs held at Guantanamo who have been ordered released by the courts. Four Uighurs have already been resettled in Bermuda.

The official said some countries were willing to help the administration despite the fact that Congress has barred the administration from resettling any detainees in the United States.

"If there are constraints, that's the terrain we have to deal with, and we will," said one official.

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